The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 26

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After his first attempt at dancing with Milly at the barn dance, Jean-Luc made a serious attempt to monopolise her attentions for the rest of the night. He did not appreciate it at the time, of course, but this was quite definitely the intention of the young woman as well. The two young people spent much of the evening in conversation, somehow unable to tear their attention away from one another, all under the watchful eyes of parents and her older sisters, and indeed a good fraction of the older part of the community, who recognised the opportunity for a new topic for gossip when they saw one.

So it was no surprise to anyone, therefore, when Jean-Luc appeared on the doorstep of Milly's parents' home a few evenings later, clearly carefully washed and dressed in his second-best clothes, and asked for an interview with her father. It was not long afterwards that, two evenings a week, Jean-Luc could be seen walking out with the local girl. Her family initially appeared to be, understandably, suspicious of this stranger, a foreigner with a strange accent and peculiar manners, but were soon won over. The following year, the banns were read and the forthcoming wedding planned.

During this period, Jean-Luc continued his work on the bridge, gradually becoming a trusted member of the local stonemason's community. The work was steady and the money was more than adequate to cover his limited needs, especially since he had almost completely stopped his - already infrequent - visits to taverns and public houses to listen to tall tales. Encouraged by his fiancée, he saved his pennies for when they would be married.

Slowly, the great arches of the bridge took shape, leaping gracefully over the water supported by the heavy buttresses that consumed nearly as much cut stone as the rest of the structure. Eventually, work moved from the arches themselves to finishing touches such as laying the cobbles for the roadbed, and carefully cutting and fitting capping stones for the walls that would prevent men and horses from falling from the bridge into the sea.

In due course, the bridge was declared complete and a grand opening ceremony was held, attended by various local dignitaries as well as a considerable contingent of what were variously described by the rougher elements amongst the workers as "toffs" and "bigwigs". Of course, mere stonemasons like Jean-Luc were not close the actual ribbon-cutting ceremony itself, but the tented fete that had been set out on the grassed area close to the causeway's end dispensed meat and beer to all comers, resulting in a celebratory atmosphere that most would remember for many a year - although in many cases filtered through the pain of a handover the following morning.

The opening ceremony itself he carefully recorded in his diary, and he also included some of the highlights in his next letter. He had continued his habit of writing to Maman as frequently as he could manage, transcribing and translating from his journal snippets of the ceremony and the fair afterwards.

It seemed however that the Fates decreed that she would not read this particular missive. A short and formal letter from the major-domo at the grand house where she worked told him of the death of Maman after a short illness described as "the flux" and informing him that she had bequeathed to him a tidy sum of money now being held in trust in a bank nearby. Jean-Luc was immensely saddened by the news, made worse by the realisation that he could not even attend the funeral, as it had happened before he even received the letter.

After the bridge was opened, the migrant workers began to leave in droves; indeed, many had already departed for newly industrial regions in Newcastle and places further south, no doubt soon to be employed in the construction of railways lines and cotton mills. Jean-Luc too began to wonder what he should do. There was still stone-cutting to be completed in the quarry, for the finishing touches to buildings and minor bridges in the vicinity, but soon the work would begin to dry up.

Even before their nuptials, Milly began to express an interest in France and in particular the Champagne region, perhaps tantalised by Jean-Luc's description of sweeping vineyards warming in the sunshine. After their marriage, she waxed lyrical about the prospect, a proposal which Jean-Luc was already beginning to take seriously, being minded to indulge his young wife.

The proposition of leaving the area and travelling to France received fewer objections from her parents than Jean-Luc might have expected. It was not very much later that, after packing a surprising number of baskets and cases, Milly bade a tearful goodbye to her parents and sisters before clambering into a wagon to start the long journey. The return trip was much swifter and more comfortable than the one he made on his way to England half a decade before. This time, he was able to afford carriage fares and inn lodgings for much of the journey and was able to make private arrangements with carters for the remainder.

There was no particular problem of travel at this time, after the overthrow of the Emperor Napoleon and his exile to Elba, and outside of the major cities things were only mildly more confused than they would otherwise have been. Their journey was tedious but otherwise unremarkable, with no more than the expected number of inspections - which were in any case little more than naked solicitations for bribes.

The young couple were able to settle down in Epernay with remarkably little difficulty. They were able to rent modest lodgings in the outskirts of the town. Milly took her wifely duties very seriously, to Jean-Luc's great pleasure, and she soon set about learning the language in the determined fashion Jean-Luc had learned she would adopt when she felt it was the right thing to do. Very soon her knowledge of French was verging on being better than Jean-Luc's English, at least as far as everyday interactions were concerned. He imagined that practice every day in the markets and shops, passing the time with the tradesmen and the other womenfolk.

Jean-Luc sought work immediately, and he expected that he would return to labouring in the vineyards as he had done so in previous years. By a stroke of luck, a chance remark with a passer-by prompted him to approach a Champagne house, combining as he did both a knowledge of the English language with an understanding of how the vintages was made. At this time, the market for these fine wines in England was expanding rapidly, and he was able to assist the English buyers in their own language.

This more responsible job brought in more money than he had ever expected to be able to earn and meant that he was able to keep his new wife in a style at least as good as her hardworking father had been able to. The savings and Maman's modest bequest permitted him, after discussions with Milly and on taking advice from his acquaintances, to buy a plot of land, a vineyard holding that allowed him to grow his own grapes for sale to the grand houses. It turned out that his choice had been astute and his grapes were often judged to be of the finest quality and commanded premium prices, allowing him to expand his holdings in later years.

As Jean-Luc and Milly settled into a quiet family life, his wife gently discouraged his interest in what he had witnessed in the Caves in France and what he had heard and seen at the Lyndesfarne Bridge. She quietly attempted to persuade him that it was all the product of an overheated and overactive youthful imagination. Recognising the determination in his young wife, Jean-Luc never argued about it, and any such ideas were soon dropped from their everyday conversation.

For some reason, Jean-Luc and Milly had not started a family, despite all the usual expectations and performances of a newlywed couple. After a certain amount of worry on this score, Jean-Luc finally summoned up the courage to broach the subject, in a delicate conversation with his wife in the middle of the night.

"It will happen," Milly said with reassuring confidence, "My mother did not have children for nearly three years after her marriage, but then she produced three daughters, one after another. I'm sure it will be the same for us."

Jean-Luc was comforted and, perhaps entirely by coincidence, his own family started to appear almost immediately afterwards. His wife gave birth to a fine son the following year, followed in due course by a second boy and a daughter. The children were happy and healthy, growing up in a loving and generally bi-lingual household. Their father's increasingly responsible position at the Champagne house and the cultivation of his own grapes left him with plenty of work to do, but with both time and inclination to pamper his wife and to treat his children on occasion.

Unbeknownst to Jean-Luc, Milly too kept her secrets over the decades. She genuinely loved her husband, although their meeting had not entirely been left to chance and her parents were much less wary of the stranger in their midst than he might have imagined. Her family had been resident in the area around Lyndesfarne for generations and had long been privy to at least some of the secrets of the crossing for ages. There was a tight network of these Old Families in the region around the crossing, in both worlds, and they kept a watchful eye on newcomers of all kinds.

Jean-Luc had been under more careful observation that he knew, and, while he was not considered to be a serious risk, it was agreed that steps should be taken to divert the curious young man. Plans and options were considered, and the approach of distracting the newcomer with one of the Old Families' younger daughters seemed to be the lowest risk. Falling in love and the engagement to be married were of course just steps along the way, and the bride could be relied upon to guide her new husband away from the area around the Lyndesfarne crossing.

A move back to Epernay, well away from Lyndesfarne was to be desired, where another clan of the Old Families could provide a degree of surveillance. But this was not something that could be rushed, especially since Jean-Luc's no-doubt formidable Maman would want to know more. Time and patience was enough to avoid this obstacle, fortunately, and a few hints would help the young couple along the way.

Jean-Luc frequently smiled indulgently at his wife's gossipy friends, pleased that she found a degree of social integration despite her initial lack of understanding of the language. He never once imagined that this was all a ploy, to keep him under the eye of first one and then another of the Old Families in this country, to make sure the secrets of the Other World remained closed to him.

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